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Cuba - First War for Independence / The Ten Years War - 1868-1878

The reasons for the war that broke out in 1868 in Cuba were many and complex. Throughout the nineteenth century, Spain had experienced increasing political instability, with liberal and reactionary governments alternating in power. Spanish policy changes were particularly reflected in the colony under the rule of such arbitrary and ruthless captain-generals as Miguel Tac6n (1834-38) and Francisco Lersundi (1867-69), the latter sharing power with more moderate and understanding officials, such as Domingo Dulce and General Francisco Serrano.

The clash between Spanish economic measures and the desires of the Creole sugar slavocracy also contributed to the mounting tension. Throughout the nineteenth century, the planters had grown into a powerful and vocal group that could control or at least decisively influence the internal politics of the island. The planters now found themselves saddled with an imperial power whose protectionist policies were challenging their status by attempting to curtail their prerogatives and reduce their mounting importance. Naturally, they were not about to relinquish their position without a fight.

Throughout the century, the Cubans had also progressively developed a separate and distinct identity. Although many thought of Cuba as another province of Spain and demanded equal rights and representation, others longed for an independent nation. Writers, painters, and poets, by looking inward to portray themes of their homeland, helped to develop the roots of their nationality. Through their works, they fostered not only a pride in being Cuban and a love for Cuban subjects but also a sort of shame over the fact that the island remained a Spanish colony. While Spanish America, with the exception of Puerto Rico, had successfully overthrown Spanish power, Cuba was still clinging to its colonial ties.

The first war for independence began on October 10, 1868 when the lawyer from Bayamo, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, one of the principal conspirators. The war was organized and directed by radical Creole landowners in Oriente Province together with a group of lawyers and professionals. The peasants did the bulk of the fighting, however, with blacks joining the rebel ranks. The leadership of the movement was in the hands of the son of a wealthy landowner from Oriente Province, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes y Quesada.

Cespedes and his group were determined to strike a blow at Spanish control of Cuba. When they learned that the Spanish authorities had discovered their conspiratorial activities, the conspirators were forced to act. On October 10,1868, Cespedes issued the historic call to rebellion, the "Grito de Yani," from his plantation, La Demajagua, proclaiming Cuba's independence. He soon freed his slaves, incorporated them into his disorganized and ill-armed force, and made public a manifesto explaining the causes of the revolt. Issued by the newly organized Revolutionary Junta of Cuba (Junta Revolucionaria de Cuba), the manifesto stated that the revolt was prompted by Spain's arbitrary government, excessive taxation, corruption, exclusion of Cubans from government employment, and deprivation of political and religious liberty, particularly the rights of assembly and petition. It called for complete independence from Spain, for the establishment of a republic with universal suffrage, and for the indemnified emancipation of slaves.

The uprising, followed shortly after by the conspirators in Camagüey and Las Villas, gained strength in spite of the merciless reaction from the Spaniards. The Spaniards in the cities, organized in voluntary militias, unleashed terror among Cuban families and became an important factor influencing political decisions. At the same time, the Spanish army advanced over the city of Bayamo, capital of the rebels forcing the Cubans to abandon it, for they never surrendered. However, before abandoning the city, the rebels themselves set the city on fire, as a symbol of their revolutionary will. Although the extremely difficult conditions were against the movement, unity was necessary, and legality was conquered through the Constitutional Assembly held in the town of Guáimaro. The legal constitution of the Republic in Arms was passed.

The manifesto was followed by the organization of a provisional government, with Cespedes acting as commander in chief of the army and head of the government. Cespedes's almost absolute power as well as his failure to decree the immediate abolition of slavery soon caused opposition within the revolutionary ranks. Facing mounting pressure, Cespedes conceded some of his power and called for a constitutional convention to establish a more democratic provisional government.

The war centered in eastern Cuba. Cespedes decreed the destruction of cane fields and approved the revolutionary practice of urging the slaves to revolt and to join the mambises, as the Cuban rebels were then called. Numerous skirmishes took place, but Cuban forces were unable to obtain a decisive victory against the Spanish army. Simultaneously, Cespedes made several unsuccessful attempts to obtain United States recognition of Cuban belligerency.

While Cespedes retained civilian leadership, the military aspects of the war were under the leadership of the Dominican Maximo Gomez. Unhappy with the treatment Dominicans had received from Spain during Spanish occupation of his own country (1861-65), and horrified by the exploitation of the black slaves, Gomez started to conspire with the Cuban revolutionaries and joined Cespedes after the Grito de Yara. His experience in military strategy was invaluable to the revolutionary cause, and he was soon promoted to the rank of general and later to commander of Oriente Province. A master of guerrilla warfare, Gomez alternated training the Cubans in that type of struggle with commanding his forces in numerous battles.

Antonio Maceo, a mulatto leader, supported Gomez's plans and actions. Under Gomez's direction, Maceo had developed into one of the most daring fighters of the Cuban army. Showing extraordinary leadership and tactical capabilities, Maceo won respect and admiration from his men, as well as fear and scorn from the Spanish troops. He kept tight discipline in his encampment, constantly planning and organizing future battles. Maceo enjoyed outsmarting and outmaneuvering the Spanish generals, and on successive occasions he inflicted heavy losses on them. Maceo's incursions into the eastern sugar zones not only helped to disrupt the sugar harvest but more importantly led to the freedom of the slaves, who soon joined the ranks of the Cuban army.

The Cuban Liberation Army, after several months of military learning obtained an impressive offensive capacity that reached its highest point during the invasion of the bountiful Guantánamo region by General Máximo Gómez, and by the brilliant battles in the plateaus of Camagüey by the cavalry commanded by Ignacio Agramonte.

By 1872 Maceo had achieved the rank of general. His prominent position among revolutionary leaders soon gave rise to intrigue and suspicion. Conservative elements that supported the war effort began to fear the possibility of the establishment of a black republic with Maceo at its head. The example of Haiti still loomed in the minds of many. Dissension in the revolutionary ranks and fears of the blacks slowed down the revolutionary effort.

However, the military victories were turned in a way into a set back due to political differences among the revolutionaries, which eventually led to Céspedes' removal from his position as President of the Republic in Arms (1873). At the same time, these differences prevented arrival in Cuba of the needed supplies of armaments and other means being sent by the Cubans emigrants. On the other hand, the hostile policy of the US Government towards the Cuban revolutionaries was also negative. The United States Government decided to abide, by its old policy, that the Cubans should remain under Spanish rule until they fall unfailingly into the control of the North Americans.

Between 1874 and 1875, the Cuban military forces were very successful, first with Máximo Gómez's campaign in Camagüey, marked by the victories at La Sacra and Palo Seco and the battle at Las Guásimas, where the Cuban army defeated a Spanish column of more than 4 000 soldiers, and afterwards by the invasion of Las Villas by the rebel troops under the command of the outstanding Dominican General. However, internal disagreement and dissension again lessened the importance of such victories and important strategic advances. This, together with the non-arrival of refreshment troops prevented the success of the planned invasion aimed at extending the war to the rich Western region of the Island.

While the revolution weakened, the Spaniards improved their military capabilities, for the restoration of the monarchy in 1875 put an end to the violent events that had characterized their life in Spain after the so-called "glorious revolution" of 1868 and the establishment of the Republic shortly after. The war dragged on, with neither the Cubans nor the Spaniards able to win a decisive victory.

The conditions, unfavorable for the rebel army and the lack of unity forced the rebels to accept the peace proposals made by the Spanish General Arsenio Martínez Campos. Finally, on February 11, 1878, the Pact of Zanj6n ended the Ten Years' War, but independence had not been obtained. Nevertheless, not everybody in the Liberation Army accepted the truce and the peace, particularly General Antonio Maceo, Chief of the Army for the Eastern region. Maceo, a mulatto born in a poor family, had reached the highest positions in the Liberation Army thanks to his courage, his intelligence and his capabilities. Most of the generals of the Cuban army accepted the pact; Maceo, however, refused to capitulate and continued to fight with his now depleted army.

After more than ten years of strife, the Cubans were unable to overthrow Spanish power on the island. The reasons for this failure are to be found partially in internal dissension, regionalism, and petty jealousies among the leaders, and partially in lack of internal organization and external support, which resulted in chronic shortages of supplies and ammunition. The odds against the Cubans were also almost insurmountable. They were fighting well-disciplined, well-organized, and well equipped forces augmented steadily by reinforcements from Spain. The Spaniards also controlled the seas, preventing the smuggling of reinforcements and weapons from abroad. The Cubans were thus forced to carryon guerrilla operations in the hope of demoralizing the Spanish army or creating an international situation favorable to their cause.

The protracted war had a profound effect on Cubans. Many Creoles fought in parts of the island they had never even seen before. Gradually, regionalism collapsed and a common cause emerged; the little homeland (patria chica), with its stress on local loyalties, gave way to the fatherland. The war also forced many to take sides on issues, thus accelerating the process of popular participation and integration. Finally, the war provided numerous symbols that became part of Cuba's historical heritage. The national anthem and flag as well as the national weapon, the machete, came out of this war. In particular, the dedication of the mambises, who abandoned position and comfort to fight Spanish power, became for future generations an example of unselfish sacrifice for the fatherland.

The impact of the war was particularly felt in the economic realm. The destruction caused by the fighting did away with the fortunes of many Cuban families. Although the struggle was concentrated in eastern Cuba and many sugar plantations escaped the ravages of war, the continuous development of a landed slavocracy in Cuba suffered a severe blow. Numerous participants and sympathizers with the Cuban cause lost their properties. Most Peninsulars sided with Spain, and many estates passed from Creole to loyalist hands. Because they had backed the Spanish cause, some Creole loyalists also profited from the losses of their brethren. The growth and power of the Creole propertied class was to be further undermined in 1886 with the abolition of slavery.


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Page last modified: 31-03-2013 19:26:06 ZULU